The best wines are fascinating and sometimes alluring. On rare occasions, they can also be inspiring. More often than not, the wines that I have found most inspiring have all had one thing in common – the inclusion of stalks, of stems, of the whole bunch, or whole cluster, in the ferment of the wine. There’s an air of brilliance to these wines, a charming tension. Something undefinably extra.
Tom Belford from Bobar Wines (bobarwines.com.au) in the Yarra Valley is effusive about whole-bunch wines. “We love them. They make for lip-smacking wines with fragrance and delicacy with a savoury twist. Our fascination with them was much of the reason that Sally and I started making wine in the first place. They have an elegant simplicity ... that we just love.”
The grape cluster consists of the rachis, which is the main axis of the bunch where the berries attach via the pedicel (or cap stems). The part of the stem that attaches the cluster to the vine, the bit that is cut to release the bunch when picked, is called the peduncle. The weight of the entire bunch can vary according to grape variety and vintage conditions, but the stem typically consists of between 2% and 5% of the total weight of the bunch.
Stems begin life as green photosynthetic material that undergoes a process of lignification, whereby lignin is deposited in the spaces in the cell walls between the cellulose fibres. This in turn slowly transitions the stems from soft and green to hardened and woody.
Winemakers often use whole bunch to increase the complexity of their wines and better express place. In cooler vintages with high acids, adding stems helps to round things out, while in warmer vintages, using stems can bring a sense of freshness to the finished wines.
“I find that it helps mitigate the hotter growing seasons here in Burgundy,” says négociant winemaker Jane Eyre. The talented Eyre was this year named Négociant of the Year by the Revue du Vin de France .
“I see whole bunch as a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can add complexity to your wine, and the stalks can help to absorb some of the alcohol, which is helpful in the warmer years.
“On the other hand, these same stalks leach potassium into the wine, which can raise the pH. And that’s not always helpful in years that are already low on the acid side of things.”
The key, of course, is balance. “In 2019, I did a small fermentation of Côte de Nuits using 100% whole bunch, while the rest of the parcel was vinified using only 30%,” Eyre continues. “The difference was incredible. The 100% was lighter, cooler, slightly lower in alcohol and wonderfully aromatic. It was also much lighter than the 30% whole-bunch ferment.”
Once upon a time, all red wines would have been whole-bunch fermented. “The notion of whole-bunch winemaking as a new technique is still a bit confusing, for me,” says Pierre Rostaing, of Domaine Rostaing (domainerostaing.com) in the Côte Rôtie.
“Destemming is the new technique, not the whole bunch… In the past, over the centuries, it was almost impossible to destem, because there were no destemming machines. It is the whole bunch which is the traditional way of making wine.”
Before the invention of the crusher-destemmer in the 19th century, removing stems prior to fermentation could only be achieved by manually picking each berry off, by hand – a process that is obviously too time consuming and expensive. This new invention, however, gave winemakers a quick and economical way of separating the stalks and stems from the berries, quickly and efficiently. These days, the majority of red wines are made from machine-destemmed grapes, either in the cellar or out in the vineyard, using a modern harvester.
“My father [René Rostaing] was the first to buy a destemmer here, in the 1980s, but he soon stopped using it because he said it was making his wines worse,” Rostaing explains. “He said the machine was removing the most interesting parts of the wine and disrupting the expression of our terroir. We look to express the identity of Côte Rôtie and, for us, if we remove the stems, we lose our identity.”
Sense of place is a fundamental notion. “I’m not particularly interested in wine style, but I am very interested in wine’s character… its identity,” says Nick Mills of Rippon (rippon.co.nz) in Central Otago.
“If we’re going to allow Rippon to express itself most accurately, to its maximum potential, then we need to get all of that material that is digestible into the ferment … that includes stalks and stems.”
Mills sees the inclusion of stalks and stems as an inevitable part of the expression of his wine’s identity and character. Being attached to the fruit and intrinsic to the vine – which is explicitly entwined to the land – there is an expectation that at least a certain component of his wines will be composed using the stems through whole-bunch vinification.
“It’s a necessary part of the plant, it forms a part of the information of the site, of the terroir, and adds to the overall shape or feel or form of the final wine,” says Mills.
“It’s usually 30-35% addition in our pinots, but if all the stems were good, I’d put them all in. I literally taste them and eat them, and if there’s any that are too bitter or too astringent, then it doesn’t make sense to add them. They won’t be digestible.”
For Gippsland winemaker Bill Downie (williamdownie.com.au), the decision whether to use whole bunch or not at his eponymous winery begins and ends in the vineyard. And there are no half measures.
“My feeling has always been, it’s either Sydney or the bush,” Downie says. “If you’re going to use whole bunches, you’re better off to use 100%, rather than 50%, because your wine will taste less stalky, less bunchy as it were.
“But I get why that might be counterintuitive, for most people. Really, you need to have a vineyard that’s planted in the right way, on the right site. To me, the site, the place is the most fundamental decision that determines whether or not whole bunches will work.”
Indeed, not all terroirs can cope with the inclusion of stalks. In some warmer regions, like the Hunter Valley for example, their addition can often appear at best unbalanced as their savouriness dominates the fruit’s perfume, and at worst obtuse, gimmicky, or superficial.
“As with anything in life, when using whole bunches, there’s an endless array of detail and nuance that keeps you wondering what goes on, which drives you to experiment more and more each time,” Tom Belford from Bobar says.
Whether a wine is made to express a certain style or unique site, a process or a place, in the best examples of wines made using whole bunch, it is impossible to tell where the grape-growing ends and the winemaking begins.